Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Great Zoo of China

The Great Zoo of ChinaThe Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


The comparisons between Matthew Reilly's The Great Zoo of China and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park are inevitable. But Jurassic Park is smart, well told, and gripping. The Great Zoo of China is...not.

The story is about a American herpetologist, Dr. Cassandra Jane "CJ" Cameron, who is invited to tour a brand new zoo by the Chinese government. CJ is joined by her photographer brother and several other American bigwigs. CJ specialized in the study of large reptiles until one ate half of her face, leaving her permanently disfigured.

As expected, the minute Chinese start showing off the inhabitants of their zoo - dragons! - everything goes kerflooey. Turns out that winged, 9-foot tall carnivores aren't that easy to control, especially when they exhibit uncanny intelligence and cooperation. Oh, plus the ones that are 9 feet are the small end of the scale.

The dialogue is laughable (the NY Times writer is basically there to infodump and mansplain to everyone), the assertions about Chinese global ambition condescending, and the character development nonexistent. (As soon as shit hits the fan CJ - a veterinarian - turns into Rambo - and she's the only one with good ideas or half a brain, eyeroll.)

I might have been able to overlook all of that - after all, I'm not one to read a thriller about a dragon zoo expecting a modern masterpiece - except the writing is so terribly, terribly awful. There are exclamation points and italics everywhere. Not to mention shifts in tense and other clumsy errors. It reads like a story written by someone with the skills and interests of an 8th-grade boy. There are over 20 redundant, badly drawn maps. And I lost count of how many times Reilly wrote "Chinese" as a modifier when it was so unnecessary. We're inside of a super-secret zoo deep in the heart of China. We KNOW all of the workers and soldiers are Chinese.

Finally, my last gripe: the side characters. They are crushed, disemboweled, and torn to pieces without a flicker of empathy. All but two named Chinese characters die horribly, while only two American characters die. There is a little girl introduced just to have a cute kid in peril to tug at our heartstrings. All of the characters are so wooden and dumb that it's impossible to care. I wanted the dragons to win, because they seemed so much more interesting than every human in this book.

Reilly's explanation of how dragons could plausibly exist and have remained unknown to modern science is a fun one, and in the hands of a competent writer the story could have been fantastic. Sure, it's a Jurassic Park ripoff, but I loved Jurassic Park. All I wanted was to read a zippy story about badass dragons eating people who thought they had everything under control. Was that too much to ask?



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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Touch

TouchTouch by Claire North

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Most humans are defined by the one body we get. We change ourselves only through the slow agony of dieting, exercise, plastic surgery, etc. Or we experience the dark drawbacks of the physical body - from overeating, injury, chronic illness, drug abuse. Whoever we are, the grass is always greener in someone else's body.

The narrator of Claire North's Touch knows intimately what it means to inhabit another's body. She is a "ghost" who can wear another person's body like a suit of clothes, and has been doing this so long that her original name, gender, and ethnicity no longer really matter. When she slips into another's skin, she can experience the greener grass for a while and avoid the pain of aging or the inconvenience of suffering consequences.

But a ghost also knows human beings more accurately than they know themselves, and to know someone is to love them. Which is why when an assassin tries to kill her and murders her host, the ghost decides to get to the bottom of the shadowy organization that sent him.

The ghost narrator (who goes by many names but is assigned the name of Kepler by her enemies) likes to readjust her hosts' lives. Whether that means taming the reputation of a society flirt, becoming the loving husband to a previously ignored third wife, or throwing away the drug paraphernalia of a teenaged prostitute, Kepler likes to make projects of her hosts and leave them in a better position than before her arrival. Mostly.

North explores the fascinating implications of a consciousness that can flit from one body to another like a communicable disease. Ghosts suspend a host's consciousness and hijack his or her life, operating invisibly. Hosts may wake after minutes, weeks, or years, unaware of any passage of time or their body's actions in the meantime.

There is sadness and moral ambiguity in Kepler's life. She is very good at running, she tells us, and proves it both literally and also by refusing to question the morality of her own parasitic existence. Kepler prefers willing hosts, but mostly for the convenience. She likes those with good teeth because she has an aversion to pain and the ability to endlessly avoid it. She is also fascinated by the hosts she takes, and calls her attachment to them love. It's easy to like her, though when looked at another way it's a little like having the story told by the protean alien menace from The Thing. The idea isn't new (remember The Host by Stephenie Meyer or The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein), but North's execution is fantastic.

Touch is a complex, well-told story that moves at the pace of a thriller. I am looking forward to reading more of Claire North's books in the future.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Dumpster

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a SkipA Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip by Alexander Masters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I've always found other people's diaries fascinating in theory, but in practice they tend to be pretty dull stuff. Most people chew over the same ideas with a dreary repetition, or else they only write when they are in a bad mood. The portrait tends to be skewed either way.

The most entertaining diaries present a self who has an idea of who he or she is, but is showing the reader someone quite different. The modest genius who spills gallons of ink on humbly reciting miniscule personal accomplishments. The argumentative person who insists that the real problem is everyone else.

What makes A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Dumpster by Alexander Masters (in the British edition, "Found in a Skip") a fun read is that Masters knows all of these things, but the diarist he discovers doesn't. And yet the mysterious diarist also knows plenty the author has no clue of - his or her gender, age, class, identity....

In places, Masters wants to pontificate over his find more than he wants to discover the identity of his mysteriously discarded diarist. This drags the book very slightly (and thanks to his wife for pointing this out to him!), but his narrative voice is one that I immediately liked because of his knack for describing others in a way that makes them seem fascinating and unique. Especially when they are as fascinating and unique as "Dido [Davies] - a historian, and award-winning biographer, author of two sex manuals under the pseudonym 'Rachel Swift' and the only person in the world who knows where the bones of Sir Thomas More are buried" (page 5). You can't beat a real-life character like Dido.

And in spite of a few dumb parts (handwriting analysis woo-woo), I enjoyed the piecemeal reveal of the secret identity of the overly prolific diary keeper. Although the book has left me with the squirm-inducing thought of how a random self-selected biographer in the future might look at my angsty teenage scribblings. Not a pretty picture.

In spite of it all, Masters has sifted a bit of gold from 148 notebooks packed with dross.

Quotable:

"Diaries are terrible liars. They record dramas out of context, encourage paranoia, rearrange facts, are deliberately biased and self self-justifying, blind you with irrelevance, sensor alternative opinion, exaggerate petty complaints into tragic emblems and, in particular, wallow in the fact that any fool can write about dejection, but describing happiness takes determination and skill." - 81

"Most people sound unbalanced in their diaries (if those diaries are honest), because that's one of their purposes: to let out unspeakable things for a little runaround." - 167

"The diaries teach us that it is too much to be inside anybody's head. It is a horrible place. All that repetition; that endless analysis that doesn't analyze, just mulls a point over and over until it drops dead from banality. What goes on in a persons brain is the opposite of what makes a story live." - 198

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal, #1)Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is exactly how I like my fantasy: eccentric, fun, with a touch of romance.

Zacharias is the newest Sorcerer Royal, wielder of the most powerful magic in England after his surrogate father's untimely passing. He's dealing with the slow ebb of English magic, accusations that he murdered his way into power, and the constant racism he faces as an outsider in a world of snobs - he is a manumitted African slave.

These issues pale in comparison with what he faces when he meets Prunella Gentleman. Prunella has ambitions, secrets, and more than her share of magic, which she as a woman is forbidden to use.

Seeing Prunella and Zacharias confront the world is entertaining. Their reactions to growing up in similar circumstances are very different. If there is a flaw in the plotting, it is Zacharias' passivity. He underreacts to everything from insults to murder attempts and political maneuverings. Prunella, on the other hand, is indomitable. But both are intelligent and principled - my favorite kind of characters.

If you are looking for diverse fantasy, this is your jam. I am looking forward to more of Cho's work, especially the continuation of Prunella and Zacharias' story.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The View from the Cheap Seats

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There are books that should be read in pairs, and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats and Terry Pratchett's A Slip of the Keyboard are two that belong together. In fact, the introduction to Pratchett's collected nonfiction is the final essay in Gaiman's collection. If you need a third book (because trilogies are in these days), I would say add Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great.

All three collections are from fantasy/science fiction writers who are the best in the game. You will come away with lists and lists of "new" classic authors to check out. (Here's my compilation of Jo Walton's suggestions.)

Here's a short list of the titles and authors I gleaned from The View from the Cheap Seats: Shatterday by Harlan Ellison; The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker; Billion Year Spree by Brian W. Aldiss; Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations by Neil Gaiman; Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees; Cerebus by Dave Sim; The Innocence and Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton; The 13 Clocks by James Thurber; Votan and Other Novels by John James; Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise by Lucy Clifford; and The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany.

That doesn't include the authors who are already my favorites: Susanna Clarke, Diana Wynne Jones, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, and so on. In fact, after years of reading fantasy and science fiction, lists like Gaiman's and Walton's make me feel hopelessly uninformed. And it seems Gaiman knows everyone. The literary world must be small!

I'm not going to go into detail about each essay, but there is one that goes with this picture that makes it just priceless.

Neil Gaiman with Rachel McAdams at the Oscars

So Quotable:

"Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it." - 22

"But then, I don't get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it's probably because it's upsetting someone." - 74

"Kids censor their own reading, and dullness is the ultimate deterrent." - 85

"What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present." - 178

"...it would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place." - 326

"And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art." - 459

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Secret World of Arrietty

Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese filmmaker with a genius for interpreting the magic of English children’s literature. As with Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arrietty is an adaptation of a book that I adore.

When I say I adore Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series, I mean I was obsessed with it, even more so than with books like The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks. (This obsession struck me right after my horse phase, and seems as essential a part of my girlhood as anything.)  Riding in the car, I would look out for exposed tree roots and hiding places that would make good Borrower nests. In my bedroom closet, I used pins and string to make it easier for the Borrowers to climb to the top of my shelves. In the backyard, I used leaves and stones to furnish a tiny 'house', imagining what it would be like to see the world from such a tiny perspective.

A teeny tiny jungle of a room - just as it should be
So when I heard that my favorite filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, was adapting The Borrowers, I was thrilled. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect imagination to transform this book.

There are beats in The Secret World of Arrietty that seem strange to me: Sho casually telling Arrietty that it’s likely her kind is doomed to extinction (I realize that he is facing his own mortality, but it's still a dick move), the housekeeper’s strangely reckless attitude toward the little people she's heard so much about, and the uncertainty of the ending. Will Sho survive? Will the tiny family? The American version tidies these ambiguities up neatly with narration, but the Japanese version does not.

As with the placid lakeside scenes of Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki is interested in making us feel this world and how the characters live inside of it. The sound of a cat walking through grass is crashingly loud. Crows and rats are menacing, and a human boy’s casual attempts to “help” are disastrously disruptive and terrifying to his tiny neighbors.

Through Miyazaki’s storytelling, I understand why Homily loves her safe, comfortable home furnished with scavenged and repurposed items, and why Arrietty is eager to explore the unimaginably vast world outside. Miyazaki’s films succeed in the realm of fantasy because he is always interested in setting, and worldbuilding is crucial in that genre.

As with any Miyazaki movie distributed by Disney, it can be helpful to watch it twice—once in subtitles with the original Japanese voices, and once with the American dubbing. (Or watch the American dubbing with the subtitles turned.) The versions are noticeably different. For example, Homily Clock, Arrietty’s mother, is considerably altered between versions; her fussiness and nervousness are emphasized for comedic effect in the dubbed, but her concerns seem more rational and less self-centered in the Japanese.

A movie cannot fully match my imagination, but The Secret World of Arrietty transformed my memories and enriched them with Miyazaki’s vision. I love this movie, no matter what its miniature flaws may be.

I am thrilled beyond belief to hear that Miyazaki is planning on coming out of his semi-retirement to expand a short film Kemushi no Boro (Boro the Caterpillar) into a feature-length film. More Miyazaki, please!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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I don't read many sad books, and I think after this one my quota is filled for the next ten years. It may be one you need to read in private so you can ugly-cry.

Sue Klebold's purpose in A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy is not just to tell her side of the story, but also to advocate for brain health awareness, particularly when it comes to depression and suicide. She talks about her experiences as Dylan's mother; what she saw, what she missed, and what she wishes would have happened. I approached this book with considerable skepticism, but the apparent honesty of her narration won me over, as did her emphasis on not justifying her son, but trying to show other parents what she missed in hopes that they could prevent suicide and murder.

Mid-book, Sue Klebold gives a very brief description of what happened at Columbine High School in 1999 when her son Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris murdered 13 of their classmates, injured 24 more, and finally committed suicide inside the school library. The media storm, ensuing financial, health, and emotional crises that she and her family suffered are all recounted throughout the rest of the book based on her journals and research.

There is a tendency after a violent tragedy to blame the nearest person, and that person is most often the mom. I think that Sue makes her case that Dylan Klebold was an intelligent but mentally unhealthy person who chose his own path, and hid his suffering from the people who would have helped him. Hindsight is always 20/20, and throughout the book she mourns the lost opportunities to reach her beloved son, while not excusing herself for mistakes she believes she made.

In my library in a prison, we collect books in "reentry" topics. One important reentry category is victim awareness, focused on helping people (who often have trouble thinking beyond their own desires) to see the effects their actions have on others. This book is not only a strong call to action in matters of brain health (Sue Klebold's chosen term), but also one that I hope will make people rethink black and white assumptions about blame and guilt. Finger-pointing may be emotionally satisfying, but it rarely prevents the next tragedy.

If you want a journalistic account of the events at Columbine, definitely read Dave Cullen's excellent Columbine, which Sue Klebold's story largely agrees with. Sue Klebold also mentions a few other books, but one that interested me most was Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters by Peter Langman. A Mother's Reckoning is a story that will certainly break your heart.

Quotable:

"The death of someone who has committed a great crime may be for the best, but any dead child is some parent's vanquished hope. This mournful book is Sue's act of vicarious repentance." - Andrew Solomon, introduction"

"To the rest of the world, Dylan was a monster; but I had lost my child." - 58

"A friend told me once that the brain 'on grief' is like an older-model computer running a program drastically too complex for its capacity - it grinds and stutters and halts over the simplest calculation. It took great effort just to hear what others said." - 117

"It can be hard to differentiate between someone who is genuinely getting out of a cycle of depression, and someone who feels relief because they know they're going to die." - 217